Skip to main content

The Versions of Us


The Versions of Us

At one point (and in one version) of Laura Barnett’s romantic drama, THE VERSIONS OF US, Jim, a painter, develops a triptych showing one couple in three different poses, depicting varying relationships and degrees of power in their interactions. Also called The Versions of Us,” this painting is easy to read as a stand-in for Barnett’s novel, which also imagines how two people’s lives --- which first cross paths (literally!) during a chance meeting at Cambridge University --- could unfold very differently depending on the circumstances.

Barnett traces the lifelong story of Eva and Jim --- which starts on that day in 1958 at Cambridge and concludes near the present day --- in three different “versions,” which are interwoven. She checks in with each version on key dates and events, illustrating how some elements of their lives are constants and others are wildly variable.

"From analyzing its structure to reflecting on the interpersonal dynamics to musing over one’s own 'what if' moments, the book provides countless avenues for contemplation and discussion."

When we first meet Eva and Jim, they are both involved with other people. Eva is dating David, a talented but egocentric actor. Jim is seeing a woman so forgettable, he almost forgets to break things off with her now that he’s interested in Eva. The son of a successful but volatile artist, Jim is an aspiring artist himself, but feels pressured by his bipolar mother to pursue a study of the law. Eva is a budding writer. In one version, Eva and Jim fall madly in love and embark on a life together; in another, they fall equally passionately in love, but circumstances tear them apart just as suddenly; and in a third, their chance encounter remains just that until they meet again years later.

As Barnett traces the ins and outs and ups and downs of Eva and Jim’s lives together and/or separately, the reader follows the characters across continents, into and out of love affairs, and inevitably back (often more than once) to one another. Reading a novel structured this way can be disorienting at times. Although the three versions are definitely distinct from one another, the changing fortunes of the characters mean that occasionally the situations are similar enough for the reader to confuse the narrative threads.

But that’s not really the important thing here. What will stay with the reader most are the questions the novel raises. How do the people with whom we share our lives shape our own personal and professional choices? Is it possible to meet the “right” person at the wrong time? And vice versa? Is it possible for a life-defining relationship to simply outlast its usefulness? And who might we be today if only we had made slightly different choices decades, years or minutes ago?

THE VERSIONS OF US is the kind of novel that’s simply written to be discussed, either more formally in a book group setting or less so between friends. From analyzing its structure to reflecting on the interpersonal dynamics to musing over one’s own “what if” moments, the book provides countless avenues for contemplation and discussion.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 5, 2016

The Versions of Us
by Laura Barnett

  • Publication Date: April 18, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books
  • ISBN-10: 0544947274
  • ISBN-13: 9780544947276